The Trump administration on Wednesday finished its repeal of the Clean Power Plan, the heart of the Obama-era climate legacy, and replaced it with a rule that extends a lifeline to the coal industry by giving states more leeway on reducing power plant emissions.
The replacement, the Affordable Clean Energy rule, places the focus on improving efficiency in the U.S. electricity grid. It puts states in charge of developing plans to lower greenhouse gases and allows flexibility to upgrade coal-fired generation.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew R. Wheeler said the rule would bring economic growth and affordable energy while improving the environment. He also called it a marked departure from the top-down regulations of the Clean Power Plan and Green New Deal resolution that Democrats proposed in February.
“The contrast between our approach and the Green New Deal or plans like it couldn’t be clearer,” Mr. Wheeler said at a press conference where he signed the rule. “Rather than Washington telling Americans what type of energy they can use, or how they can travel, or even what they can eat, we are working cooperatively with the states to provide an affordable, dependable and diverse supply of energy that continues to get cleaner and more efficient.”
Once fully implemented, he said, the rule is expected to lower carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity generation sector by as much as 35% by 2030 from 2005 levels. The annual net benefit was estimated at $120 million to $730 million.
The Affordable Clean Energy rule was hailed by Republicans, the coal industry, unions and miners. About a dozen coal miners with hard hats from West Virginia attended the event.
Democrats and liberals argued that the plan would endanger Americans’ health and exacerbate natural disasters.
“The Trump administration’s outrageous Dirty Power Scam is a stunning giveaway to big polluters, giving dirty special interests the greenlight to choke our skies, poison our waters and worsen the climate crisis,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president at the Center for American Progress, said the Trump administration should move toward 100% renewable energy instead of “siding with polluters and the voices of the past.”
From his earliest days in office, President Trump has targeted the Clean Power Plan. He signed a directive in March 2017 for the EPA to review and replace the never-enacted rule.
The Obama administration finalized the Clean Power Plan in 2015, but the Supreme Court stayed it immediately in response to a lawsuit filed by 27 states, which argued that the plan illegally usurped their authority.
Rep. Glenn Thompson, Pennsylvania Republican, called Mr. Obama’s initiative the “Coal Punishment Plan.” Critics argued that it was aimed more at bringing down the coal industry than achieving significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.
Instead of crushing U.S. coal, Mr. Wheeler said, the focus should be on innovation that reduces coal’s impact on global greenhouse gas emissions. He noted the fossil fuel’s continued use by nations such as India and China and America’s role as a technology leader.
“If we don’t develop the next generation of clean coal technologies here in the U.S., no one else will,” Mr. Wheeler said. “It’s important to remember our technologies are exported to developing countries and others. The Obama administration basically froze all future clean coal technology to the detriment of millions in China and India.”
Examples include carbon dioxide capture and sequestration, in which emissions from coal- and gas-fired plants are taken and stored underground in geologic formations. More than 40% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions come from electricity generation.
“We’re working closely with our partners in both the public and private sectors to research new energy technologies, and a prime example of this is the excellent work that’s already underway on carbon capture utilization and storage, or CCUS, which will make our domestic coal fleet more efficient,” said Dan Brouillette, deputy secretary of the Energy Department.
The U.S. coal industry has declined steadily over the past decade under market pressure from cheaper natural gas and the rise of renewable energy, but mining-state Republicans argued that the Obama administration’s “war on coal” promulgated regulations and discouraged investment.
“Keep in mind, the Clean Power Plan had little or no effect on the environment, but the reality was, it was devastating to our coal industry across America, coal country,” said Rep. David B. McKinley, a West Virginia Republican who chairs the congressional Coal Caucus.
At the same time, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have been on the decline for more than a decade, falling by 14% from 2005-17 as natural gas displaces coal in power plants, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“The ACE rule will help continue the trend of declining electric power sector emissions while preserving America’s energy leadership and respecting the law,” said Christopher Guith, acting president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute.
Michelle Bloodworth, president and CEO of the pro-coal group America’s Power, said about 40% of the nation’s coal-fired plants have either retired or announced retirement. Coal provides about a third of the U.S. electricity supply.
“We expect under the Clean Power Plan, there certainly would have been a lot more,” said Ms. Bloodworth. “Our nation’s coal fleet is essentially to maintaining grid reliability, resilience and, most importantly, fuel security. Let me commend EPA for not using environmental policy to drive energy policy outcomes.”
Despite the rash of retirements, Rep. Carol D. Miller, West Virginia Republican, said the Trump rule has given hope to her coal-producing state.
“Thanks to the commitment and support from this administration, my district, which was so devastated by Obama’s war on coal, is finally bouncing back,” Ms. Miller said. “Several of our mines are reopened, and our miners are working again.”